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Yazidi Children, Torn From Their Families By ISIS, Forget Their Identities


The Islamic State kidnapped thousands of children, most of them from the small Yazidi religious minority, when ISIS tried to wipe out the Yazidis five years ago. They were Kurdish-speaking Yazidi children torn from their families and raised as Arabic-speaking Muslims. They are still being rescued in Syria. As NPR's Jane Arraf reports, although they are free, some are having trouble in reclaiming their identities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Kurdish).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In a quiet village in northeastern Syria, in a large room with carpets and cushions on the floor, an older Yazidi woman with traditional tattoos on her chin passes around candy. It's in celebration of two Yazidi girls being freed the night before from the ISIS family who held them captive.

MAHMOUD RASHO: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "This is like their birthday," Mahmoud Rasho says. He's the Syrian Yazidi official who found them and whose family is taking care of them until they can go home to Iraq. Jeelan is 11, and Watfa is 10. Jeelan sits hunched over. She's taken the brown and white scarf that had covered her long dark hair and wrapped it around her thin shoulders like a shawl. You would think she'd be overjoyed, but she didn't want to be rescued.

JEELAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "I just want to live with Um Ali," Jeelan says. "Um Ali is my real family." Um Ali is the Iraqi woman the girls lived with for the past two years. When the last part of the ISIS caliphate fell, Um Ali and the two Yazidi girls she was pretending were hers were taken to a detention camp, along with 70,000 other people.

RASHO: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: That's where Rasho, a Yazidi official who's been looking for Yazidis secretly kept in the camp, found them. He and his family have taken care of almost 150 rescued women and children - some injured, all of them traumatized - before sending them home to Sinjar in Iraq. Some nights, they would have more than a dozen people sleeping in their living room.

RASHO: (Through interpreter) Um Ali was selling girls. She was marrying them off when they were two or three years older than these girls.

ARRAF: But that's not how Watfa and Jeelan see it. They were 5 and 6 when they were kidnapped and say they don't remember it. They don't remember their parents' full names. Jeelan says Um Ali took them in when they had no one to care for them.

JEELAN: (Through interpreter) She raised me. She would tell me this is OK, this is not OK; this is good, this is not good. She taught me how to read and write.

ARRAF: Watfa sits across the room with her arms around her knees. She looks at the patterned carpet on the concrete floor. Compared to the camp she came from, this is luxury, but she's miles away. It's hot, but she wears a long-sleeved shirt and sweatpants.

WATFA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "I don't want anything except to go back to Um Ali," she says. "She's better than my mother."

RASHO: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Rasho asks Jeelan if she wants to see her family - her father, her brother and sister - back in Sinjar.

JEELAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: She says no. The girls have forgotten the Kurdish dialect of Yazidis. They speak only Arabic now. And they say they don't even want to be Yazidi.

JEELAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Yazidi girls and young women don't cover their hair. But Jeelan says she likes wearing the niqab, a black cloak that covers everything but the face, because, she says, God says we need to wear it.

HAYA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Rasho's teenage daughter Haya comes in, dressed in jeans and a pink T-shirt. She tells the girls not to cry, but they're inconsolable.

JEELAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "She's more precious than my mother," Jeelan says about Um Ali.

ARRAF: Rasho takes Watfa out for a video call with her family in Canada, where they moved after her mother was rescued from ISIS. She's already spoken to her mother. And this time, it's other relatives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

WATFA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: They stand on a windy rooftop, where the reception is better. You can see fruit trees and chickens in the yard. Rasho has his arm around the little girl as he holds the phone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: With no common language, it's a halting conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "You don't know Kurdish?" her relatives keep asking. "You have to speak Kurdish - no Arabic." Watfa gives one-word answers until she recognizes a young uncle.

WATFA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "You've become a man," she tells him. Rasho tells them she'll be going back soon to Iraq.


RASHO: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "You see? They love you, and they want to talk to you. Aren't they better than Um Ali?" Rasho asks her afterwards. No, she says, but she's smiling now.

HAYA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Rasho's daughter Haya tells Watfa they can watch cartoons together and a Bollywood film. The girls have never seen one. Instead, Watfa puts on a pink cloak that covers everything but her face to pray. Jeelan retrieves the black niqab she was rescued in the night before. She clutches it in her hands, and then she puts it on, a serene smile on her face. When I leave, she gives me an Islamic blessing. Rasho says it's hard now, but after a month at home, he's confident they'll remember who they were before ISIS.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Hasakah in northeastern Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ SONG, "THE FOREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.